Athenian pasty (recipe)

Based on a dish I was served just around the corner from Hadrian’s Library, Athens (Βιβλιοθήκη του Αδριανού, Αθήνα).

Ingredients per pasty:

  • Pre-made pastry
  • 50g feta
  • 2 cherry tomatoes
  • Black pepper
  • Dash of olive oil

Method:

  1. Put feta on pastry as shown
  2. Halve cherry tomatoes, arrange as shown
  3. Grind on black pepper
  4. Drizzle on olive oil
  5. Cover feta & tomato with excess pastry as if you’re wrapping a present, pinching pastry together with your fingers to seal it
  6. Getting on a little more black pepper
  7. Bake for ~17 minutes @ 220 C

Larnaca, Cyprus

Cyprus is small. It’s the third smallest country I’ve been to after Luxembourg and Singapore.

From a British point of view, the number of abandoned buildings and modern ruins in Berlin is shocking, but the density of these in Larnaca was even more surprising. There were a lot of roads with no footpaths, but — in contrast to any American city where the footpath has ended — the roads themselves are still very walkable. This is probably partly because houses on those roads have front doors which open onto the road without the driveway that’s practically mandatory in the USA, so everyone knows to drive slow and carefully.

It was also surprising to be back in a place that drives on the wrong (left) side of the road, and that all of the street furniture was the same as in the UK, but that’s the sort of thing only a Brit could care about.

Cypriot pedestrian crossing with English-only user guide.
Cypriot pedestrian crossing with English-only user guide.

There were a few ancient ruins in the city; of these, the Kition seemed to be the main one, while the Archeological Museum was a surprising mixture of “closed”, “currently being excavated”, “a warehouse”, and one olive press. Interspersed with the ruins were a few in-use-now-or-recently buildings, such as the coastal defence fort (and then police station) at the south end of the main pedestrian tourist/food beach, and a few churches. There was also a mosque right next to the fort, but I couldn’t tell if that was open to tourists, open only to worshipers, or disused entirely.

Church and museum
Church and museum.
Larnaca fort
Larnaca fort.
Ancient Kition
Ancient Kition.
Acropolis, Lanarca
OpenStreetMap says this is an Acropolis. It seems to be part of the Archeological Museum.
Ancient ruin of an olive press, presumably partly reconstructed
Ancient ruin of an olive press, presumably partly reconstructed.
Collection of archeological artefacts sheltered from rain by wooden roof
Archeological Museum outdoors display.
Kamares Aqueduct, Lanarca
Kamares Aqueduct, Larnaca.

The tourist area was fairly standard for tourism — a mixture of fast-food and fancy, with plenty of picture-based menus, some brands you’d recognise and others which prided themselves on how authentic they were. There were, of course, also the standard tourist tat shops selling overpriced duplicates of the same things you can buy anywhere. So far as the genuine authentic local cuisine went, there was what seemed to be a local variant of pitta bread, sweetened with honey or chocolate — when eating it, it felt very much like a soft, floppy pastry. I recommend tying it if you get the chance.

The housing itself had some details you might not expect. In each of the two hotels I used, there was a message in the bathroom saying “don’t flush toilet paper” or similar, while at the top of nearly every building I passed, I saw large white plastic containers, each roughly the size of 2 or 3 bathing in volume. Water? I wouldn’t know.

Less surprising were the stylistic choices. Newer building were the same as newer buildings everywhere: rectilinear, plain, high quality; the older buildings, the one more likely to be (but not universally) in a state of disrepair, are of a style I do not recognise. It’s nice to see something new to me when I travel.

The climate was a bit of a surprise. As with Athens, I had been expecting much warmer and sunnier; even though I went from 1-4°C in Athens to 9-14°C in Cyprus, the previous winter in Spain had led me to expect 14-18°C in both and no rain. There was a lot of rain.

Hellenic Snowballs

I’ve just completed an out-of-season 4-night trip to Athens. For me, this is the perfect length — enough to see all the famous sites, with half a day extra so that I never felt rushed.

Map of central AthensThe only bit of Athens you need to care about, unless you want to see the beaches or something.

Being the kind of person that I am, I did an unnecessary amount of walking; unnecessary because there is a perfectly good public transport system, which I only used to get between the city and the airport (a journey which takes an hour, almost exactly like literally every other combination of airport and real destination I’ve visited).

My hotel was the cheapest one I could find that had at least an OK rating on Booking.com, which turned out to be not only 5 minutes walk from the metro station, but also within 20 minutes walk of all seven of the main archeological sites of ancient Athens, and also the semi-archeological, semi-modern-reconstruction that is the Panathenaic Stadium.

Tourists on the Acropolis
There are *how many* tourists on the Acropolis out of peak season?

Despite it being out-of-season, the streets around my hotel were busy and bustling with activity when I arrived, and there were many tourist shops for both foreigners like me and only a few that seemed to be aimed more at native Greek speakers. The crowds and bustle turned out to be mainly an evening thing, as the streets emptied after midnight, and were merely “normal” (by my standards) in the morning. Similarly, even out-of-season, the Acropolis and the Agora (two separate sites, not that you’d notice if you looked at Google Maps or OpenStreetMap) were about as full as I’d be comfortable with as a tourist — it was possible to read the historical information boards, with only occasional waits for other tourists to get out of the way, but many more would’ve been difficult.

In fact, there is only one reason I’d give for not limiting your visits to the gap between Christmas and New Year’s Day — the weather. Last year I was on the Mediterranean coast of Spain with my family, giving my mother one last trip abroad before her Alzheimer’s made travel impossible (she was convinced she was in France); because of this, I was expecting Greece — the other end of the Mediterranean, but just as far south — to have much the same weather. It didn’t. Spain was sunny, and by British standards pleasantly warm, but Athens has been mostly single-digit Celsius, with wind-chill sometimes making it feel -1°C. It also snowed occasionally, something that British people of my generation are not used to.

Athens, Greece
Look how narrow those streets are!

Structurally, the buildings of Athens give me a pleasant feeling of combining anarchy and the sort of density that feels somehow right for a city. By most people’s standards, it is cramped and decaying — certainly, anyone living in the Anglosphere who complains about their country being “full” would explode from raised blood pressure if they were transported here. Likewise, traffic lights are treated as mere suggestions, so if you’re used to living in a culture of following rules, be careful when you use a pedestrian crossing that’s giving you a green light, because one of the drivers might not care.

I am pleasantly surprised how many people here are fluent in English, but not as surprised as I was when I noticed how much of the graffiti is in German.

Europe by rail, part 9 of 11: Luxembourg

Screenshot 2019-05-27 at 10.07.49.png
Wasserbilig, © OpenStreetMap contributors

Luxembourg is both a city and a country; the first train station I saw in the country, on my way to the city, was Wasserbillig. The difference in architecture and styling immediately obvious, though unfortunately by this point in my journey a minor glitch in my phone’s screen had developed to the point of it being mostly unusable — I could only take photos with patience unavailable on a train journey. Some of the balconies here use glass or plastic, tinted like old fashioned red/green 3D glasses.

When I arrived, it was a short 25 minute walk from the station to my hotel. The hotel itself is cheap and run down (don’t read much into the city because of this, I was getting the cheapest place I could each time… in fact, given this was now 3 years ago, don’t reach much into the hotel either), with steep gloomy stairs and doors that were a struggle to lock and unlock. Nearby church bells rang out every hour.

Screenshot 2019-05-27 at 11.26.17.png
GPS trace of my second day in Luxembourg, map data © OpenStreetMap contributors

The city layout felt very strange. It took a very long time before I found a single supermarket in Luxembourg — before that, just endless restaurants and hotels, a funfair, and offices. With the benefit of hindsight, this was down to a few wrong turns on my part, and I managed to miss the entire shopping district. If my phone screen hadn’t been practically unusable at this point, I might have been able to look at the map and make better choices on where to go.

Because of that, and because the restaurants I could find on my first day were either extremely expensive or meat-based, I had to buy my first few meals from the train station.

Luxembourg City seems to be primarily French speaking, even if on paper Luxembourgish and German share the role of official language with French. Definitely worth knowing if you plan to visit.

Eventually, after too many train station sandwiches, I finally found a pizza restaurant — expensive by British standards and not very good quality food, but with pleasant service that meant even my limited grasp of French (GCSE grade D) was not a problem. On the way back to the hotel after dinner, I was waylaid by a man asking if I’d like something to smoke, and then passed by a woman who called me “honey” — I’m assuming weed and street prostitution but I never actually confirmed either as neither appeals to me.

Luxembourg feels poor. A strange situation for one of the highest GDP/capita countries in Europe the world — either 1st or 2nd place, depending on if you are measuring nominal or PPP. A few very rich people pulling up the average? Regardless, it’s very strange.

On my second day, I finally found a supermarket, going by the name “Cactus”, which I’ve never seen before or since. It’s a different style than I’m used to, and it was noteworthy how few vegetarian options there were.

Pedestrians seem poorly catered for: some hedges are so overgrown they are in danger of forcing people into the road, the paths themselves barely look wide enough for wheelchairs, and some paths just stop suddenly forcing U-turns. In retrospect, this reminds me of the USA.

Many flats here have blinds on the outside of their windows. Such things don’t exist in the UK to my knowledge, so I don’t know what they are about — security or fashion or technical advantage — but they are also widely used in Germany and Switzerland.

IMG_20160612_133517.jpg
Why did I take a photo of a car park from the side of a castle? Was this to illustrate how much Up there is in the city? I wish I could remember.

I passed the “Centre Convict“, wondering if the translation is as obvious as it seems. The sign was surprisingly prominent, so I still don’t know if it’s a prison, or a museum about prisons, or a parole office, or something else entirely.

Cash machines here look like they can take PIN codes much longer than 4 digits, which is a surprise to me. “Made by Diebold”, it said — now there’s an infamous name. Lots of G4S signs around, too, on the topic of infamy.

The city has a lot of height variation, and the train journey in and out has pleasant views. If you like pretty old buildings, you might like to visit it; but it wasn’t a place for me.

Europe by rail, part 8 of 11: Oh Dieu, Köln

I’m on the train to Köln, and a woman wearing a holstered gun on her hip just walked past. From her walk and her rucksack, I’d say she looked like a normal person rather than a plain clothed police officer. (Note for non-British readers: such a thing would be unheard of in the UK, as the UK has such a strong ban on guns that even police officers are not (with a few exceptions) armed).

Screenshot 2019-03-18 at 13.06.46
Köln Hauptbahnhof and rain/foot bridge over the Rhine.
© OpenStreetMap contributors.

Köln Cathedral has a lot of interesting fiddly bits on the outside, but is also covered in an incredibly ugly layer of grime. The contrast between it and the surrounding buildings is even more extreme than for similar gothic cathedrals in the UK, and the whole thing feels wildly out of place.

IMG_20160609_143118
Köln Cathedral

My first need in the city was, as usual on this trip, to get to the hotel; so I didn’t stay long by the cathedral. The bridge to the east is both rail and foot, and its fences are covered in enough love locks to put the famous love lock bridge in Paris to shame. The city to the east was a mixture of pleasant architecture and brutalist shopping districts that would be immediately familiar to anyone from the UK. However, one of the nicer looking residential areas I walked through had a surprise that would shock most British people: on a residential wall, there was a billboard with two adverts, the one on the left advertising the biggest brothel in Europe (or at least, that’s what it seemed to be claiming the “Magnum Sauna Club” was), the one on the right a public health campaign to always use condoms.

 


Seeing solar panels everywhere brings me joy. It’s a feeling that yes, the world is taking climate change seriously, and actually solving things now. There is an Aldi (budget supermarket) here, with a roof covered in solar panels, and it looks like the roof was designed with those panels in mind.

Something about the place gave me the feeling that Britain is an unfree country, but sadly my notes were not good enough to remind me why. Still, that is an interesting idea for a blog post about what ‘freedom’ means anyway.

Köln feels very multicultural. In particular, Greek food seems very popular.

The edges of the city of Köln (yes, I did walk from the main train station to past the city limits, that took something like two hours) are as sudden and magnificent as those of a rural English town: A block of flats and then, suddenly, countryside.

In part of the city that feels rougher, more worn down. Noticeably more German flags. I wonder which is cause and which is effect, if either?

Dense traffic at 15:30. Mere coincidence that that is the UK’s school closing time, as I’ve read that German schools close “between 12 noon and 1:30 p.m.”.

While wandering, I took a wrong turn and I think I ended up on somebody’s driveway. They opened a window and shouted at me anyway, and I did my best to apologise, leave and blame my phone (which I was looking at while walking).

Some of the blocks of flats have a lot of visible chimneys on them. Sometimes I remember how incredibly fast technological progress has been, and how recently open fireplaces stopped being the main form of heating in the Western world. Chimneysweep is still an official job in Germany, and (I’m told, my German isn’t good enough to check), the law requires you to let Chimneysweeps in when they call on you — if you don’t have a fireplace, they check the gas systems for carbon monoxide etc.

I didn’t see any beggars in Zürich or Heidelberg, but I didn’t realise that I hadn’t seen them until I reached Köln and saw them again. Some of the city centre public transport stops smell faintly of urine. The centre is far too crowded for people like me; in retrospect, I’d say it felt as crowded as the popular parts of Manhattan, except that Manhattan was designed for it and Köln’s city centre is struggling with it. Don’t get me wrong — you don’t have to go far if you want relaxed, it’s just that you can’t get it in the immediate area around the cathedral.

On the Rhine, I saw what looks like a two part boat, where the nose of one is pushing into a U-shaped hole in the back of the other. I have no idea what that was about, and couldn’t get a good picture.

There’s a lot about Köln that reminded me of Sheffield in the UK. I have the impression that similarity is not merely superficial, that Köln really is to Germany as Sheffield is to the UK.

All in all, it just wasn’t that interesting a place compared to the other places I visited. So onward I went; the next destination was Luxembourg City, which took me through Trier. Trier was so bad that my diary says “Trier Hbf lacks the sophistication of many of the other German stations I’ve stopped at. Reminds me of a typical British station.”

New Year’s resolution

I need to blog more. This year I’ve been to:

  1. Paris (🇫🇷) for New Year’s celebrations, followed by a trip to Italy to see Milan (🇮🇹), Bologne (🇮🇹), and Venice (🇮🇹) before returning to Paris and from there to home
  2. Zürich (🇨🇭)
  3. Several towns and cities in the Brittany and Pays de la Loire regions of France, including Nantes (🇫🇷) and Angers (🇫🇷), as the main caregiver for my mother who was also on that trip
  4. Confuzzled, Birmingham (🇬🇧)
  5. A 1080 km cycle along the Rhine, taking me through (amongst other places) Hoek van Holland (🇳🇱), Rotterdam (🇳🇱), Randwijk (🇳🇱), Duisburg (🇩🇪), Köln (🇩🇪), Kestert (🇩🇪), Worms (🇩🇪), Hochstadt (🇩🇪), Lichtenau (🇩🇪), Village-Neuf (🇫🇷), and Basel (🇨🇭), before making a rapid series of Rhine crossings both ways, taking a few wrong turns, going up the worst possible not-a-mountain Swiss hill I could’ve chosen and being picked up by my friend from Zürich to hang out at his place and take a day trip to try (and fail) to reach the source of the Rhine near Andermatt (🇨🇭)
  6. California (🇺🇸), based mainly in Davis, including a multi-day road trip along the I-80 to Salt Lake City (Utah), returning via Reno (Nevada), camping one night more than expected in an unincorporated village near Redding whose name I can’t remember because the Carr Fire had literally begun a few hours before it diverted us to a much longer route to the next stop — McKinleyville — and a few days after that visiting Eureka as we returned to Davis, having a few day trips to Sacramento, and then seeing the Pacific coast of San Francisco
  7. Berlin (🇩🇪), because I’ve moved here to escape from the UK
  8. Cambridge (🇬🇧) (where I used to live) and Portchester (🇬🇧) (near family and old friends, and it has a castle)
  9. The Mediterranean coast of Spain, in particular the Orihuela Costa (🇪🇸), Cartagena (🇪🇸), and El Castell de Guadalest (🇪🇸)
  10. Helsinki (🇫🇮), where I was for New Year’s, but I didn’t have anyone around for the celebrations this time, and my flight home the next day was too early in the morning to be worth going out alone.

I need to finish off my original series of blog posts on the topic of travelling around Europe for a month on an Interrail pass just before the Brexit referendum vote before I do these in any detail.

 

Europe by rail, part 7 of 11: Altstadt Heidelberg and surrounds

Panorama from one of Heidelberg's bridges

Going from Zürich to Heidelberg by train, Freiburg looked a lot nicer when going past it northwards than it seemed going southwards.

The route required I change train at Manheim. Manheim station is far less commercial than the other city stations I’ve been to on this trip. In that regard, it almost felt like a British station. Manheim itself looks heavily industrialized, so I don’t think I’ll miss out if I don’t explore it.

PANO_20160608_144331
Panorama from one of Heidelberg’s bridges

Heidelberg is pretty. There are many bicycles here, often locked to themselves rather than to fences and bike racks, which implies low fear of crime than I’m used to in the UK.

On the walk from the station to the hotel I saw a motorcycle driving on the cycle path, something I’ve only otherwise seen in The Netherlands; I passed signs pointing to asparagus and potato without explanation… curiously followed by signs for asparagus and strawberries.

Surprisingly, a car used the bicycle lane to skip a queue and turn right. Very un-stereotypical for Germany. (I’ve since learned that the German word for someone who crosses the road without waiting for a green light is “Außlander” (foreigner), and while I don’t know how facetious they were being, it felt correct).

Open farm in Heidelberg 
Open farm in Heidelberg

North of the university, and close to my hotel, there were large open farms; think allotments but without any barriers. Presumably this is what the signs for strawberries, potatoes and asparagus were for, thought I have only seen the strawberries so far.

The university is pleasant; while it has plenty of dilapidated Brutalist buildings, many are covered in vines that make them look much nicer. Some of the nearby buildings — I’m not clear if they’re university or not — are much more modern. All look appealing.

The river has a large dam with a footbridge above it; the power and ferocity of the water flowing under the dam is terrifying to behold, even though it’s not even particularly tall — 4m difference in water level, I would guess.

I continued to be surprised by how many vegetarian options there are here. There’s so much good stuff!

One thing you don’t get from pictures is the smell of a place; and even in person, I often find I only notice it when it changes — when the UK suffered petrol shortages after truckers blockaded refineries in protest against taxes, the air quality massively improved, but I only noticed the improvement not the previous poor quality, and I didn’t notice it get worse again.

There is a cycle path south of the train station, just far enough away to be blocked from sight by buildings, where the air smells so much fresher and cleaner that I can almost imagine I’m in the wilderness, not the city centre. I wish I could fully describe what this place smelled like, but I never built up a good olfactory vocabulary.

There are some Arabic signs here and there, and I’ve seen far more black people living in Heidelberg than in Zürich. (Alas, between my notes and this being years later, I’m not sure if I meant “black” as in sub-saharan African decent or in the colloquial sense it has in the UK that also encompasses northern African, Middle-Eastern, and significant parts of the Indian subcontinent. Sorry about that — just as Posh Person Privilege means I don’t think to make note of which football team a person supports, White Privilege means I don’t really notice fine details of race unless it gets spelled out for me.)

The old city (Altstadt on OpenStreetMap) is a similar quaint style to the old city in Zurich, but without such dense crowds. It is full of old reddish stone and cobbled roads.

Heidelberg is a small-yet-pleasant place, although though I would recommend staying away from the immediate vicinity of the railway station. On that thought, perhaps I misjudged Utrecht earlier on this trip, having seen it only from passing through the station?

German vending machine which vends condoms
German vending machine which vends condoms

German vending machines sometimes stock condoms — Something I’ve never seen in the UK, and I suspect I will never see in the USA.

When I left for the next stop on the trip, I once again changed at Mannheim. The entrance hall of Mannheim station looks better than the rest of it, but I’m still not going to regret missing the chance to explore a city that seems dominated by such large industrial buildings.

I definitely recommend a break in Heidelberg to anyone who likes relaxed, historic, or close-(ish)-to-nature environments.